Internet addiction is characterized by excessive or poorly controlled preoccupations, urges, or behaviors on the internet that lead to distress or difficulty functioning.1 Internet addiction is a relatively new disorder, and we still have much to learn about it. Though specialized treatment is relatively limited, traditional methods of therapy used for behavioral addictions have proved helpful.
What Is Internet Addiction?
Internet addiction is an unofficial diagnosis of a type of behavioral addiction marked by excessive and compulsive internet use that feels out of your control. What is considered healthy internet use will vary from person to person, but it can become unhealthy if it’s starting to interfere with your daily functioning.
How Common Is It?
A 2019 study conducted by Pew Research Center revealed that 81% of Americans reported daily use while 28% stated they are “almost constantly” online.3
5 Types of Internet Addiction
Researchers have identified five different categories of internet addiction, which each have their own set of behaviors and concerns.
Here are the five types of internet addiction:4
1. Cybersex Addiction
A sexual addiction is a condition marked by repetitive and increasingly risky or problematic sexual behaviors.5 Related, cybersex addiction is acting out sexual addiction through the internet. This includes addiction to pornography and other sexually explicit material, sexual fantasy or adult chat rooms, or XXX webcam services.4
2. Net Compulsions
Net compulsions involve those interactive activities that tend to negatively impact finances and employment. Compulsive online shopping, online auctions, online stock trade, and online gambling are examples of these activities. What is particularly enticing is that the person generally receives gratification twice—once upon initial engagement (e.g., making a purchase), and again when the service is received (e.g., the package came in the mail).4
3. Cyber Relationship Addiction
Cyber relationship addiction happens when the need to be involved with finding and maintaining online relationships becomes compulsive.4 This may entail the quest for online fame or be driven by “likes” and comments on one’s social media. As people become more desperate for this type of approval, it becomes increasingly likely that the person will only show one side of their personality or begin embellishing or lying about what their life actually looks like.
4. Compulsive Information Seeking
Compulsive information seeking is a constant need to continually search for information. Given the vast amount of correct and incorrect information available online, this may ultimately prove an overwhelming task. Regardless, the person moves from one topic to the next, compulsively searching for more information.
5. Computer or Gaming Addiction
Computer or gaming addiction entails a general compulsion to be on the computer or playing games as much as possible to the detriment of well being.4 Before the Internet was widely used, home computers included basic games such as solitaire, which for some, were addictive in nature. With the Internet constantly providing new games, there is a never-ending potential for playing as many games as possible.
Signs of Internet Addiction
While the type of use may vary, children as young as 1 or 2 are now familiar with how to navigate a tablet, while senior populations are using the Internet to retrieve and store medical information. Although there are some commonalities between and among the signs of Internet addiction for all age groups, there are some differences to consider.
Signs of Internet Addiction in Young Children
For very young children, warning signs may include excessive tantrums when removed from the Internet, as well as a lack of engagement in other activities (e.g., playing with dolls, coloring, building with blocks, etc.). Because many parents must meet the everyday demands of work, family and so on; the Internet has become an “electronic babysitter.”
While it does help keep children away from potentially physically risky behaviors, as well as “off the parent’s back,” it does lead toward a pervasive need for more immediate gratification, and makes traditional play less enticing.
Signs of Internet Addiction in Older Children & Teens
For older children and teens who did not previously demonstrate signs of Internet addiction, it is important to note changes in behavior from the norm. This is in addition to characteristics described for young children. Here we may also witness a lack of physical social engagement and failure to complete household chores and homework.
With older children and teens, it is important to consider whether the attachment to the Internet is due to interpersonal issues at school. Perhaps the child or teen is struggling to fit in or is being bullied. The Internet, then, may serve as a means of escape and re-creating one’s identity.
Signs of Internet Addiction in Adults & Seniors
For adults and seniors, similar characteristics as mentioned above should be considered. With this population, however, it is more challenging to set boundaries around use. For adults and seniors, the Internet may be required for work. Further, it is harder to take away Internet accessible devices.
It may be easier for adults and seniors to hide such addictive behaviors. It is highly likely that one of or a combination of interpersonal skills deficits, mental health complications, and/or substance use may be involved. Also, people may be using the Internet as a means of coping and avoiding everyday and traumatic stressors.
Effects of Internet Addiction
Although the Internet itself does not impose harm upon a person, excessive and compulsive use leading up to and including Internet addiction does come with it a plethora of physical, cognitive, and social issues.
Some of the more common emotional symptoms associated with Internet addiction include:7
- Feelings of guilt
- Inability to prioritize or keep schedules
- No sense of time
- Avoidance of work
- Mood swings
- Boredom with routine tasks
Some of the more common physical symptoms associated with internet addiction include:7
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Poor nutrition (failing to eat or eating excessively to avoid being away the computer)
- Poor personal hygiene (e.g., not bathing to stay online)
- Neck pain
- Dry eyes and other vision problems
- Weight gain or loss
Although none of these symptoms are directly fatal, exacerbating symptoms can lead to suicidal or homicidal ideation and successful attempts. It is important to not only consider internet use as an individual problem, but the entire picture.
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Causes of Internet Addiction
Accessibility, control, and excitement are leading factors in the cause of internet addiction.8 Accessibility entails easy and immediate 24/7 access to the Internet. Control means that individuals can go online when they want and engage as desired. And excitement is that euphoric feeling one experiences when one’s needs are met. The greater the accessibility, control, and excitement for the individual; the greater likelihood that one may ultimately become addicted.
One study focused on purposes, causes, and consequences of excessive Internet use found the following main categories for why people use (or overuse) the internet:9
- Learning and development needs
- Socialization need
- Psychological reasons
- Seeking entertainment
While many of these are healthy, everyday activities, it is the excessive and compulsive nature of Internet addiction that makes them increasingly unhealthy.
How Is Internet Addiction Related to Mental Illness?
Research has found that adolescents who struggle with internet addiction are more likely to have issues with substance use, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), specific phobias, schizophrenia spectrum disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and/or aggressive and impulsive behavior.6 For adults, typical predispositions may include depression, anxiety, substance use, compulsive behaviors, sleep disorders, ADHD, anger issues, and/or dissociative experiences.6
How to Deal With an Internet Addiction
Living with Internet addiction is an ongoing effort that requires both intention and consistency. What is particularly challenging with this addiction, however, is accessibility—the Internet is practically everywhere.
Here are some practical boundaries to implement if you’re living with an internet addiction:
- Limit internet use to only when necessary
- Buy traditional electronic items rather than those that access the internet (like your television and mobile phone)
- Use programs and apps that notify you of the amount of time you’ve spent online and deactivate WIFI on the device when you don’t absolutely need it
- Engage in healthy hobbies and prosocial activities that don’t involve the internet
- Build a personal support group of friends and family members you trust
- Talk about any challenges you are having as they arise
- Attend internet addiction support groups (which are becoming increasingly available)
- See a therapist as needed for extra support and accountability
The most important thing here is recognizing what works for you. So long as it is healthy, stick with it. From that point, continually re-evaluate your situation to determine whether you are staying on a healthy track. Whenever things begin slipping, it is important to take action immediately.
Treatment of Internet Addiction
Treatments for Internet addiction may include individual or group therapy, lifestyle changes, residential treatment for more severe cases, and medication if there is a co-occurring condition that warrants it.
Treatment approaches for internet addiction are relatively new and have some catching up to do. Fortunately, many of the most commonly-used approaches for behavioral addiction are adaptable to this relatively new phenomenon.
Here are several common types of therapy that could be used for internet addiction:7
- Behavior modification
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Equine therapy
- Art therapy
- Recreation therapy
- Reality therapy
Couples or family therapy may also be helpful for those whose internet use has damaged relationships. For more severe cases of Internet addiction, a more specialized, residential style treatment may be beneficial.
Individual treatment outcomes will vary. The most critical determining factor here is someone’s willingness to change. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and it requires a lifetime of intentional effort.
While there are some considerations regarding medication to treat internet addiction, this is a relatively new endeavor that warrants further exploration. For those with co-occurring mental health disorders, it is recommended to take any medications as prescribed. Not taking medications as prescribed may ultimately impact the symptoms of internet addiction as well.
How to Get Help for Internet Addiction
If you’re ready to get help for internet addiction, you can find a therapist by talking to your doctor, calling the number on the back of your insurance card, or using an online therapist directory.
How to Get Help for a Loved One
When helping a loved one, it is important to have a supportive, informed conversation. It should be expected that your loved one may deny or become defensive. Your response should be as supportive as possible and come from a loving place. Once your loved one acknowledges the problem, a collaborative approach toward treatment may begin. It might be helpful for you to take them to therapy sessions or ask them if they would like further accountability from you.
As you move forward, it is also important to model healthy behavior, which may entail cutting back on internet use yourself and bringing your loved-one along for real-life activities and adventures.
How to Get Help for a Child or Teen
Upon a supportive discussion around the issue, it helps to immediately set boundaries. This may involve limiting the amount of time on computers, smartphones, and tables, or removing them completely for a time if necessary.
Encouraging involvement in prosocial activities, spending more time with the child or teen, and brainstorming alternative means of having fun are also helpful. As a parent or guardian, there is the option to follow through with treatment, even if involuntary, so long as the child or teen is a designated minor. The more comprehensive the approach, the more likely a successful outcome.
Preventing Internet Addiction
Preventing an Internet addiction requires a combination of being knowledgeable about what it is and being self-aware. If you notice an increase in use and more life problems beginning to arise, it is important to take a pause. This requires a level of honesty with yourself regarding how much time you’re actually spending on the internet.
Here are some suggestions for preventing an internet use problem:
- Limiting time spent on the internet and accessible devices
- Download an app or tracking software that monitors your internet use as a preventative measure
- Limit time spent on electronics in general
- Take short breaks when you’re on the internet for a longer period of time
- Be intentional with what you are doing online and do not engage distractions that may keep you on longer
- Participate in prosocial activities that you enjoy
- Participate in team sports or activities
- Spend physical time with family members, friends, co-workers, and others without allowing yourself to be distracted
- Be present with your work—whether occupational or school
- Purchase fewer electronic devices, especially those that access the internet
- Engage in physical exercise and activities you enjoy
- Spend more time outdoors enjoying nature
- Write letters by hand
- Read a physical copy of a book
- Engage in any other healthy activity you enjoy that limits time spent online